It was an icy Valentine’s Day for my boyfriend and me.
Not in a mean way—we were literally freezing our butts off in Iceland.
We took the jaunt across the pond—seriously people, it’s only a four-hour flight from New York—for a long, romantic weekend of exploring like Vikings.
It was a Christmas present to ourselves, merely a month after our other epic journey to Machu Picchu (Note to self: curb traveling addiction, attempt to save monies). My love has always wanted to go to Iceland, and I am always open to traveling to new places, and so off we went.
I had no idea what to expect, as all I’d heard of Iceland is: 1) They have an epic EDM scene; 2) There was a big volcano a few years back that stopped European air traffic, and 3) It is wild and frozen and probably full of trolls.
We landed in Reykjavik early in the morning. We booked the entire trip through an Iceland Air package—the first time I’ve ever done a package trip—and so I was highly skeptical of the hotels and tours. I needn’t have worried; I was actually quite blown away at the quality.
We were immediately taken to Reykjavik Lights, a gorgeous, contemporary hotel that served us breakfast as soon as we arrived. We settled into our room and then were whisked off on a tour of the Golden Circle.
Fresh off the plane, and in one swift afternoon (with a rather hilarious tour guide who rambled on about all sorts of various oddities) we saw three incredible natural wonders: the Great Geysir; the dramatic, frozen Gullfoss Falls; and Thingvellir, where the oldest existing parliament in the world first met, you know, in the year 930.
It seems, just a short drive outside of the northernmost capital in the world, that the earth is still forming. Geysers are exploding, rivers are carving out valleys, and tectonic plates are shifting every day. I am not really a nature buff, but I was in awe of Iceland’s beauty. Little did I know, we hadn’t seen anything yet.
That night, for Valentine’s Day, we hunted in downtown Reykjavik for a restaurant that so many of our friends had recommend, called Grillmarket, or Grillmarkaður. It was one of the best meals we’ve had.
But the best part of the long weekend was our domestic jaunt to the north of the island—via a tiny puddle-jumper prop plane that swooped us over glaciers and fjords, volcanoes and lakes. We landed on perhaps the iciest runway I’ve ever seen, in Akureyri, which is the second largest “city” in Iceland (read: 17,000 residents).
We spent a few days there, skiing and dining and exploring and hoping for those elusive Northern Lights to show their colors. The tiny town—and the lovely KEA Hotel we stayed in—was friendly and welcoming, albeit frigid. My new furry Sorel boots were given a true test.
On Sunday we were picked up for a private tour. Our guide, Jon Thor Benediktsson, a short Icelandic man with a huge personality and plenty of energy, drove us in a big-wheeled jeep to the center of the island and around Lake Myvatn.
I have never seen landscape like there is in northern Iceland. It was pure white—a winter wonderland. I expected Santa and Mrs. Claus to pop out at some point in the miles and miles of snow-covered hills and mountains.
But there’s something about the northern Icelandic landscape that took me a minute to recognize: There are no trees. In fact, it is so white and barren and beautiful that you have to squint to see the contours of the earth. The reason for this is because it’s all volcanic rock—dried lava fields covered in powdery snow.
Lake Myvatn was completely frozen over. What is actually a very lush, green bird sanctuary in the summer, in the winter is a frozen sports center. We saw snowmobiles and trucks skidding over the ice.
It was an incredible Sunday. We crawled into caves and touched the piping hot geothermal water. We were the only humans for miles staring at the stunning frozen Godafoss waterfalls. We held our noses in the steaming sulfur fields.
In the midst of this, we did stop for brunch. There is a lone working farm right on Lake Myvatn, called Vogafjos Cowshed-Café and Guesthouse. We were expecting food, but our first impression was the stench of cow dung in the working dairy farm building.
The cows watched us—and moo’d at us—as we traipsed through their living room to the restaurant. Inside, the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the Hverfjall volcano and its huge crater. A brunch view that will never compare to anything else—not in a million years.
The farm has been owned by the same family for more than 120 years, passed from one generation to the other. Now, they have 16 milking cows in their stable, which you can watch being milked through the window of the cafe promptly at 2:30 in the afternoon.
Everything is homemade and local in this restaurant, from the smoked trout to the mozzarella to the home-baked cakes. Jon ordered us the Icelandic stew—a speciality that we had heard about repeatedly on our trip thus far. It’s called Kjotsupa, and it’s a traditional recipe of juicy lamb, beef stock, and root vegetables like carrots, rutabagas, and potatoes. It warmed us right up.
On the side, we each had a few slices of geysir bread. This Icelandic ryebread, called rugbrauð, is actually baked in a metal canister sunk into the nearby geothermal springs. We even saw the wooden setups on the side of the road as we drove around the lake. The bread was spongy and delicious. And sometimes covered with the freshest Arctic char.
To wash it down, we each had a pint of Viking beer, which is actually brewed back in nearby Akureyri. It was good we ordered Viking at this restaurant; when I ordered a Carlsberg in town I got a funny (perhaps offended?) stare from the waitress.
After brunch, we headed to the Myvatn Nature Baths, which was magical. Unlike the touristy Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik, the baths were small and quite empty. Big powdery flakes of snow fell on our heads as we soaked in the geothermal hot springs.
It was a mystical, magical Sunday. Unlike any brunch adventure I’ve ever had.
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